1. What now?
It was National Brownie Day, and the Cal cheerleaders celebrated by tossing some into the student section opposite the team benches.
Too bad. The Aztecs could use something sweet right about now.
If Wednesday’s 12-point loss against USD — the most lopsided in 14 seasons at Viejas Arena against an unranked opponent — didn’t extinguish any realistic hopes of an at-large NCAA Tournament berth, Saturday’s L against one of the worst Pac-12 teams in recent memory certainly did.
Cal was 2-5 and 217th in NET, the NCAA’s new computer metric (out of 353 Division I programs). The sample size still isn’t large enough to draw definitive conclusions, but you get the idea. The Bears’ only other wins are against teams at 282 and 305, and they were coming off a 19-point home loss against USF.
And when you’re in a mid-major conference without access to multiple opportunities for “quality” victories in January and February (translation: outside of Nevada, the Mountain West is awful again), your margin of error is tiny in November and December.
There are, of course, wins against Xavier and Illinois State, but both are rapidly losing their luster. Xavier is 6-4 and hasn’t beat anyone in the NET top 100. Illinois State has lost three straight, including a 94-75 shocker at Illinois-Chicago last week, and dropped to 205 in NET.
The Aztecs are down to 107, from 43 just two games ago.
What does all this mean?
It means, essentially, their season now amounts to three (or possibly four) days in March, rendering the next 22 games little more than a three-month training camp for the Mountain West tournament.
A lot of teams are in that boat, and the Aztecs were last year. What complicates a return to the NCAA Tournament — the measuring stick on Montezuma Mesa for a successful season — is it almost certainly requires winning a conference tournament that includes the nation’s No. 6 team. Nevada was good last season, and the Aztecs upset it in the semifinals. But the Wolf Pack are improved and carry the memory of that beatdown as motivation.
In other words: Good luck with that.
There are tactical issues to fix between now and then, starting with a suddenly porous defense and nonexistent bench. The bigger problem, though, might be the mental welfare of a young team and how it copes with the growing realization that, in the second week of December, the chances of meeting the lofty expectations of its fanbase is dwindling.
2. The D is silent in SDSU
To comprehend how far a program built on defense has slipped, consider this statistic:
SDSU had won 70 straight games when making at least half its shots, and it shot 55.6 percent against Cal. And lost.
The Bears shot 54.8 percent in the first half, 50 percent in the second. Throw in USD’s 56-percent effort in the second half, and that’s three straight halves at 50 percent or better. There also was 50.9 percent by Duke and the 14 3-pointers by Iowa State.
This, by a program that ranked 30th nationally in defense last season according to the Kenpom metric. And 28th the year before. And fourth, fifth and seventh in the three years before that.
This, by a program that held opponents under 40-percent shooting in five of the previous six seasons.
Their current Kenpom defensive ranking: 143rd, their worst since Steve Fisher’s 2004-05 team that finished 11-18 overall and 4-10 in the Mountain West.
If there is a common thread between the four losses, it’s that all four teams employ a similar offensive philosophy, without a back-to-the-basket post, with a bunch of 6-foot-5 guys on the perimeter who can all drive and shoot and pass. It is modern basketball, popularized by the Golden State Warriors, a product of analytics that favor 3-pointers and layups over contested jump hooks.
And the Aztecs have struggled to defend it with their traditional man-to-man defense. They tried zone for a stretch in the first half, and it worked until the Bears drained a pair of 3s in the final minute to cut a seven-point lead to 42-41.
In the second half, they went back to man and tried switching all screens. That worked better, until it didn’t and the Bears closed the game on an 18-5 run.
“Offensively, what more can you do? We scored 83 points,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “But we can’t give up 89. We made a lot of big mistakes defensively. There’s all sorts of stuff we need to work on. We are just so up and down, but that’s not an excuse. We will play two or three good defensive games, and then we give up two more halves with 50-something-percent shooting.
“It’s unacceptable, and it can’t happen … I’m so disappointed in our defense. I’ll go back and watch the tape, and there will be a million things to fix.”
3. Trust issues
Dutcher scanned the box score Saturday night, and his finger stopped on the far left side, under “Min.”
Jalen McDaniels: 37:27.
Devin Watson: 36:18.
Jordan Schakel: 36:28.
Jeremy Hemsley: 36:54.
“It’s a lot of minutes,” Dutcher said. “I didn’t use my bench enough, and not down the stretch. I think we definitely got tired legs, playing three games in (eight) days. We wore down a little bit.”
So he’ll use the bench more going forward?
“I think I’ve got to,” Dutcher said. “But I’ve got to get more faith in my bigs. I’ve got to get them out there and roll with them a little bit. I have to get them more quality minutes.”
He committed to using 6-10 posts Nolan Narain and Nathan Mensah in the first half, playing them a combined 15 minutes. But they got only seven minutes total in the second half and weren’t on the floor in crunch time. Aguek Arop played just 30 seconds, all late in the first half.
Bench scoring: Cal 33, SDSU 10.
The predicament facing Dutcher is when teams go small, as more and more do against the Aztecs. His response in the second half Saturday, as it was against USD, was 6-3 guard Adam Seiko, fearing his bigs would be exposed defending ball screens on the perimeter in Cal’s five-out scheme.
“It had nothing to do with them offensively,” Dutcher said. “Defensively, I didn’t trust them enough the way the game was going. I have to get where in practice I’m seeing it and they can help on penetration and stop that ball when it comes into the paint.”